Should Food be used in Preschool Sensory Activities?

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Every since I dipped my toes into the world of Early Childhood Education, the hotly debated issue of whether or not food should be used in preschool sensory activities has come up multiple times. My background in the arts, where all supplies were fair game for art-making, didn’t prepare me for the variety of opinions that circle this topic.

TinkerLab reader, Pam, presented this question on Facebook after I shared a post for making colored rice:

Should food be used in toddler sensory activities?  |  TinkerLab.com

And Pam’s question reminded me of a question from our friend, Lori, just two weeks earlier:

Should food be used in toddler sensory activities?  |  TinkerLab.com

Since this question comes up a lot, I wanted to take a moment to unpack it here and share some of the pros and cons for using food in toddler and preschool sensory activities. Please keep in mind that the word “preschool” can relate to a preschool classroom setting or to the age of a preschool child who is at home. My own answer to this question (shared below) differs according to the context.

I’d love to invite you to share your thoughts on the topic, as it’s quite possible that something will be left out. My goal isn’t to convince you to take a stand in one camp or the other, but to provide you with the tools you might need to make a decision that’s right for your situation.

I pulled together some reader quotes from the aforementioned conversations and invited some blogging friends to chime in on the topic as well.

Let’s go…

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Con: Using food for Play is Insensitive and/or Wasteful

With millions of children in the world living in poverty I think it is ignorant to use food for play. Sticks, crunchy leaves, seed pod, tree slices, bark, dirt, organic sawdust, shells, small stones, sand, ice….. The list of non food, non toxic FREE play alternatives are endless. Mother Nature has provided us with all we need for sensory play. - Lee-Anne

When you fill your sensory table with rice or millet you are being playful with an amount of food that could feed a family for weeks. It teaches children that materials are abundant, and not of any great value, things that aren’t true in most of the world. In my center we use edible materials for babies but we try hard to find ways to value and honor the food that we use.  – Kendra

It is not about confusing play with food you would eat, it is more like using food in play as though it were nothing, when in reality in many countries out there, it is very expensive, heck, 1 play bin could feed a family of four for 2 meals in our own country. We do not realize how much other people struggle and it is seen as wasteful. It was mentioned on my blog how many USA bloggers treat rice and beans and lentils and the like as nothing, but in many other areas those things are expensive. Not just underprivledged struggle either, many Americans that are there for the Armed Services find those things pricey in many areas as well…it is about being informed. - Michelle

Just know your audience. If you’re working with families facing food insecurity, seeing bins or beans or rice “wasted” can seem disrespectful. I use a lot of dried beans and dyed rice in my sensory bins, but I make sure it is ok as far as the population I’m serving first. – Sarah

Best practice means being respectful period, not just the make up of your class for one particular year.  – Mary

In New Zealand we don’t use food ie dried pasta etc for play as its not Tikanga. Cultural principles around the subject. There are many many other natural resources we use to provide tactile play.  -Sarah

Play with food at the table, in the context of eating, is ok, but playing with food for enjoyment sake itself is, in my view, a real first world ignorance. It could feed a family, perhaps even one in your centre, for a day and you disregard that issue with this type of play. Also, stuffing bean bags with dried beans, rice or other such food, is not a good idea either, for the same reasons. Many cultures keep food sacred, separate from all other activities, and with good reason. I highly suggest avoiding food-play in this way. The greatest food play is getting even the youngest of children to help you prepare food- my 2 yr old loves to bake, peel carrots and whisk eggs. Making games of the meal is all part of learning to enjoy food. Hope this helps. Non-toxic toy alternatives are wool, cotton, wood, and flax, not food.  - Tota

Oh my….Food needs to be respected- not played with! Let us try as an early childhood community to raise children on the concept of respecting food, where it comes from and how it is vital for nutrition. – Cathie

It is a child care regulation in my state that food cannot be used in sensory tables nor art projects for the cultural and wasteful reasons others have mentioned.  – Genuine

Pro: Using Food for Play is not Insensitive or Wasteful

It’s funny how being respectful of food with children comes up frequently, yet the biggest challenge facing most of the global population is clean drinking water. We frequently use it for “play” and for washing off surfaces. Children in some areas are deprived of a good part of a school day because they walk hours to get fresh water for their families. In schools here we have “water tables” and “splash pools” full of drinkable water before it gets used.  I have no problem with staples being used for food play with children. Food banks and global donations always contain a surplus of those items. Fruits and vegetables, dairy, and proteins are items to be avoided for food play with children. Anyone who is struggling financially has no problem putting macaroni or rice on the table. It is the other 3 food groups that are challenging. A lot of staple foods are thrown out because they have gone stale or not eaten. Using them for educational purposes is better than discarding them.  - Alan

I prefer to use the food scraps. We have a post on vegetable scrap stamping. If the food is going into the disposal, the trash or the compost, and it presents an opportunity to learn (either by dissecting it, planting it, or doing some art with it), then it is great to use. It also affords an opportunity to have the kids in the kitchen with me while I cook, where we can do an activity together even though I’m getting chores done. – Patricia, Critters and Crayons

As a history educator, I keep in mind that food items often were and are still used in play and art all over. Consider, too, that the bag of rice you buy in your developed world grocery store won’t otherwise be going to someone living in hunger l. Global hunger is less due to a food shortage than to war, lack of infrastructure, and a political failure of will. Rather than take stand on a particular type of material, I focus on being mindful of the effects of our choices and the ways in which we can further social justice.  – Candace, Naturally Educational 

 I used a bunch of old macaroni that was stale for a sensory bin for my toddlers. Seeing as it isn’t cooked, it’s hard to recognize as “food” and I would rather use it in some way than throw it away because it never got eaten. Plus, my 2 year old tends to put everything in his mouth and I would much rather him end up with a stale piece of macaroni than sand or beads. – Christina

I don’t agree that using food in a different way is “wasting”. It’s being used, meaningfully and with great purpose. Are kids wasting finger paint? No they are using it. They are learning with it. It is valuable. I appreciate the need to be sensitive to families both socio economically and culturally but I reject the idea that use is waste.  - Kawai

We enjoy using food for our crafts and sensory play. I do understand that it may be seen as a luxury to be so wasteful with food – but then surely having a huge variety of paper, handfuls of crayons and pens and many many more craft materials could be considered a luxury too? This may be a little black and white for some, but if I can afford to buy a pack of marker pens for $5, then I can also afford $1 for a bag of rice. – George, Craftulate

We use rice in our sensory table because we have yet to find something that feels as wonderful. We’ve been using the same container of rice (we rotate) for two years now. We are not being wasteful with it and have found the benefits to be wonderful. – Melanie

In regards to the food “waste” issue, I would argue that food is not being wasted, just used in an alternative way. Is the food being digested and giving the body nutrients? No. But is playing with food stimulating my child’s nervous system in ways that non-food sensory play can’t? Yes. And in the long run, we’ll be “wasting” much less food because my child will now eat the food we played with, rather than refusing it every time it’s presented on a plate.  – -Jordan, Motherhood and Other Adventures

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Con: Preschool Kids May be Allergic to Sensory Activities

Also a consideration is food allergies or intolerances that may crop up in the classroom. It’s hard to have to make changes to the curriculum year to year to safely accommodate everyone so if you can come up with non food alternatives that may be best.  - Lissa

My daughter had a dairy allergy when she was a preschooler. It was brutal worrying about every potential craft or activity being something that could harm her. I’m grateful she outgrew it, but I remember those anxiety filled days well.   – Melinda

As a parent of children with food intolerances, I dread any food-based activities at school. Especially at preschool with my toddler, who is more likely to jam things into her mouth. In fact, when my oldest was a toddler, she viewed the sensory table as her own personal all-you-can-eat buffet. (This was before I knew how those ingredients affected her.) As a parent, I either have to hope the teacher can exclude my child from any activities involving foods she’s intolerant to if there’s a risk of ingestion, or else I as the parent have to provide enough of a safe alternative for the class to use instead. Which can quickly become an expensive burden! I do see the value of food-play, and it’s a safe way for littler ones to have sensory play without fear of choking. It’s also a great way to raise adventurous eaters, by having them interact with ingredients in multiple ways (taste, touch, smell, etc,) and by using familiar foods in different ways (a lot of kids get stuck in a rut where a food must be served the same way every time!) So as long as the teacher/school is willing to accommodate food allergies and intolerances, then I’m all for food play at school! But if a child is constantly put at risk or must be excluded from an activity, then that class may have to miss out on food activities. -Kendra, Biting the Hand that Feeds You

Pro: It’s fine if Children have no Allergies

As long as there are no food allergy issues, I’d say go for it. Kids will play with food no matter what.  - Teri

I have children that put everything in their mouths. Using food made more sense than anything else because it wasn’t going to be toxic if they ate it. It also wouldn’t leave trace on their hands and was easily replenished. We reuse the food as much as possible. I have a cupboard with jars of various food used in arts and crafts and play that gets brought out again and again. -Cerys, Rainy Day Mum

Pro: It’s Helpful to Children with Sensory Needs

As a mom of a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, yes, food should definitely be used in toddler and preschool sensory activities. Presenting a child with food to play with, instead of eat, is a way to introduce new textures and smells without pressure. The child is allowed to explore at their own pace, and in their own way. My son never was willing to taste pasta until after we explored cooked spaghetti in a sensory play activity. -Jordan, Motherhood and Other Adventures

My son had sensory integration issues and was only 14 lbs at 1 year. He was on a feeding tube and went to OT. At OT, do you know what they did? Play with food!. It actually teaches them to get used to different textures and not have an aversion to new foods. I was born during the Vietnam War and there was mass starvation when the war ended due to collectivization of the farms and bombings. I personally had to get over food hoarding and being a member of the clean plate club. Like everything, moderation is the key. Be respectful and don’t throw the rice around, keep it in the container and try to reuse it afterwards (make bean bags, make maracas, stress balls in balloons, heating pads, I Spy bags, rainsticks, etc.).  – Lucy

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Con: Natural Objects should be left in their Environment

Would like to just throw out there that it seems many who have big concerns about food play are suggesting the alternative is to simply gather items from nature instead, and that idea is grand but should be approached with consideration to the natural world versus ”free for the taking”. If everyone heads outdoors to gather up sticks, twigs, pinecones, seeds, flowers, bark, etc. then you’ve now taken food and shelter from animals who depend on us leaving these things be. Absolutely, there are responsible ways to acquire some natural items within reason; e.g, from your own property, but typically most educational sites and resources do not promote this, they simply put in their lesson plans ”gather up some pinecones and make this glittery craft” or ”swoop up flowers from a nearby field to dissect or learn fractions”, etc. Squirrels and Bees would suggest perhaps growing your own flowers and pick one pinecone vs. a plethora, especially if it so happens to be a weak year of natural food. I know where we live is scarce this year due to rain last year and the bears and wildlife are hungry searching for what they can. As well, some natural found items are federally protected resources that can land you in big trouble for taking. So it really seems that providing any materials to children to play has a plus and a negative aspect to it. Perhaps looking at it altogether differently is an alternative. For example, children digging and growing a small garden themselves gives sensory experience whilst building an appreciation for food, as well as not taking food from wildlife to play with. Picking and Washing the veggies also are hands on sensory experiences. Eating and preserving most whilst using a few in crafts and games much like ancient cultures did. For example, making apple heads or bobbing for apples, creating corn dollies or even corn husk dolls. Or maybe gather natural items at a time of year they are not so crucial to wildlife and then returning them when needed (fall/winter). Another alternate idea from food; either human or animal, is building up a recycling/repurposing inventory. Milk jug tops, empty cartons, squeeze bottles, jars, cans, etc. These can be turned in to fantastic toys and play items.  - Missy Louise

Pro: Food is Natural and Healthy

I used to have a problem with it, but now I think it´s better than buying other toys/playdough etc. We reuse the dried food/homemade playdough over and over. From an environmental view I actually think it´s better than a lot of plastic, battery operated and general toys as they are often made with nasty chemicals, break and may end up in landfill. So I would much prefer to be letting them play with dried foods that will decompose! Kids naturally play with food at the table when they eat and I actually think it´s important to do this so that they can experience the food you are expecting them to put in their mouths. In saying all of this rice, flour and beans are about all we use (easy to store and re-use). At Christmas/easter time the odd potato for stamping. - Felicity

I have to say I lie in the pro-food camp. For me the benefits of using food in preschool activities outweigh the cons. I personally like using food because it is a less expensive alternative to many costly art supplies, because it encourages children to see unique ways to use everyday items, and because it makes for safe, non-toxic play materials. - Ana, Babble Dabble Do

I understand the concern but do you want your children to play or accidentally ingest toxins??? I would much rather use rice or flour than something that would harm their growth, remember this is used as a learning tool and something to keep in mind using toxins what message is that sending? I am all for organic but we must understand there is a down side to this usage also.  – Robin

My girls are 3 and they know not to play with food at meal time. They constantly do food play at school and home…..I would rather them eat a Cheerios than a plastic bead. If they are taught to understand (which they can do at preschool age) it shouldn’t be an issue. - Jessica

You could have food on plates that could be played with then eaten. You could use beans for play then plant them. I’d much prefer kids playing with biodegradable products than something that’s going to end up in the bin like the loom bands everyone has gone mad for. I think in the scheme, of things a bag of rice is fine for play, perhaps playing with food might bring children closer to understanding and appreciating it. I’ve made veggie critters with kids and it’s a wonderful activity.  – Kristy

 If we are not “pro-food” in sensory play, then what are we? Unless you’re only then reaching for natural materials, the alternative is synthetic, manufactured items that cause their own environmental footprint and sense of “disposable” waste. If properly cared for, food sensory items can be reused again and again — the same bag of quick oats, the same batch of homemade playdough.
Food provides unparalleled, multi-sensory engagement and is something that most people reading will have ready access to.
Also, if the concern is having children “play with their food,” I would suggest that allowing this might encourage children to be more adventurous with their food choices. Even painting with spices might encourage a plain-eater to try something a bit spiced up! – Jennifer, Study at Home Mama

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Take the Middle Ground

Gather materials from nature for your sensory bins. Rocks, pebbles, sticks, fresh cut herbs, dried plants, mud, etc! It’s free, teaches about our local environment, and can be returned outdoors or composted. Personally, I use limited amounts of food materials. Winter wheat berries that we then give to a farmer is great in the fall. Talk about wheats life cycle, read “little red hen”, sprout wheat, talk about wheat to flour, bake some bread. All in balance friends. No sense judging one another’s practices!   - April

Really, it’s about the balance and respect for other cultures. I do use food, even as a sensory but in the context of teaching my preschoolers about cooking and nutrition. Giving them the independence to learn how to make something and then do it at home is the best lesson I can teach them. They still get to “play” / “create” with food but in a more appropriate context that they will remember and use.  - Cathryn

I personally aim to think carefully about any materials we use in play. I want my children to have access to a wide range of materials for sensory experiences and creative prompts, and prefer open-ended, natural materials. We try not to use anything which is disposable after only one brief use, we use as many recycled materials as possible, and we try to recycle or compost what we’ve used after we have played. Using this criteria sometimes food is a better choice for us – for example some uncooked pasta which we might use as maths manipulatives, put in a sensory tub, and then paint and use for art, or threading necklaces. We use it many times before composting it to benefit our garden classroom.  – Cathy, NurtureStore

I probably think way too much about this topic. I do agree that for some young children using food is a safe alternative – if they tend to put things in their mouths (my son says I’m the most over-protective mother). Several years ago when teaching art at a preschool in a poor neighborhood it struck me as very sad that many o the children only ate when they got their free breakfasts and lunches at school. I imagined how one of those children would feel seeing pudding used to paint or an apple used to print. I stopped using food in my projects. I’ve since started again, but not in the same ways. I’ll use items I would normally toss (like strawberry tops) or I do a swap- I’ll have my son choose an items to donate to the food pantry box at our grocery store if we are going to use food in an activity. I know that the five blueberries I’m going to use or a printing project won’t cause a world hunger crisis, but it makes me feel better and teaches a good lesson on helping others to do so. I explain it a little better in this post on berry art. – Rikki, Mini Monets and Mommies

Should food be used in preschool sensory activities? | TinkerLab.com

Where does TinkerLab stand?

As I mentioned earlier, my background in the arts prepared me to think abstractly and broadly about what can be used as an art material. When I set up my first art studio, Chris Ofili’s paintings with elephant dung and Damien Hirst’s real shark floating in formaldehyde took the art world by storm, demonstrating just how far artists can push past the use of traditional art supplies. I happily made things with non-art materials like Valentine conversation hearts, resin (which comes from trees), and flowers collected from my garden. Wasn’t this better, and maybe more interesting, I thought, than spending tons of money on store-bought supplies?

Now here’s an interesting fact about store-bought art supplies: Food and natural materials are often in the ingredients. This is something to think about if you have a child with food allergies. For example: Play-doh (flour, salt), Crayola Colored Pencils (soy), Air-dry Clay (corn starch), and Crayola Washable Markers (corn syrup). If we’re to avoid food products in art then we need to consider these less obvious culprits. These ingredients aren’t included in package labels and are essentially hidden from consumers. Since food products are found in store-bought art supplies, I see very little difference in adding food to my own supplies.

Introducing my kids to natural materials is also far more interesting to me that exposing them to toxic materials. As such, we will occasionally use food for play or projects, and I’m more inclined to do so if it’s scraps, expired, or if the play/art supply will last for a long time. We do our best to recycle and return things to the earth. Some of the things we have used and made: flour and oil in cloud dough, rice flour in gluten-free cloud dough, rice in colored rice, flour in the best play dough recipe, wheat berries in our wheat berry sensory table, and sweetened condensed milk in milk paint.

Food for Play in schools: I don’t run a school, but in that context there’s a good chance that I would avoid using food for play due to allergies and a desire to respect the religious and personal perspectives of a diverse audience. When it comes to the school environment, I often look to my colleague, Deborah, at Teach Preschool. See the first article, below.

More thoughts on Food in Play

A Discussion on Food Use in the Early Education Classroom, Teach Preschool

Parents and Teachers Working Together: Should Food Be Used as Learning Materials, Early Childhood News (the discussion in the this article is so rich and will give you a lot of food for thought — no pun intended!)

Play with your food? Or not? My thoughts on Food in Play, Picklebums

Being Thankful for Food, Planet Smarty Pants

Using Food in Preschool, Interaction Imagination

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Preschool Art | Make Colored Rice

spreading out rice

After seeing so much lovely colored rice all over my Pinterest feed for ages, it was high time that we created our own colorful rice. And you, too, can make your own colored rice for an afternoon of sensory play or for filling clear jars with layers of rainbow rice like you see here.

Preschool Art: How to make Colored Rice

Why Colored Rice is Worth Making

  • It’s a natural play material
  • Kids love the sensory experience of sifting it through their hands
  • It’s economical
  • The supplies probably already live in your pantry
  • Kids can help make it
  • It can last a looooong time

Preschool Art: Colored Rice

Supplies for Colored Rice

  • White or Brown Rice
  • Vinegar
  • Food Coloring
  • Zip-up plastic bags or bowls and spoon for mixing the colors

TinkerLab tips

Can we use brown rice?

We used brown rice for this activity, and the colors are still vibrant.

What’s the rice : vinegar ratio? 

For each color that we made, we used 1 cup of rice and 1 teaspoon of vinegar. That’s the ratio that you’ll want to work with (or experiment — we encourage that too!).

But rice is Food!! 

If you’re concerned about wasting food, check your pantry for old rice. That’s what we did, and low-and-behold, we had a bag that expired last year. Eeep. I wish we hadn’t missed the expiration date, but at least we could put that rice to good use!

Will my kids actually enjoy this?

Yes, I bet they will! I try to get my own kids involved in all the steps of our projects, and they enjoyed everything from this ro-sham-bo face-off to decide who would make which color of rice to finally playing with their colorful creation.

Preschool Art: Colored Rice

If you’d like to make this recipe, simply click ‘Print” and you can save this in your recipe file.

5.0 from 1 reviews
Preschool Art | Make Colored Rice
 
Author:
Prep time:
Making time:
Total time:
 
Make your own colored rice for sensory play or art-making. This recipe makes one cup of colorful rice. Add more rice for more colors.
Supplies
  • 1 cup White or Brown Rice
  • 1 teaspoon Vinegar
  • ⅛ + teaspoon Food Coloring
  • Zip-up plastic bags or bowls and spoon for mixing the colors
Steps
  1. Fill a zip-up bag with 1 cup of rice and 1 teaspoon of vinegar.
  2. Scoop or pour about ⅛ teaspoon food coloring into the bag.
  3. Zip the bag shut
  4. Squeeze the bag and mix the rice all around until the food coloring is well distributed
  5. Add more food coloring to reach the desired color.
  6. Pour the colored rice onto a cookie sheet. Spread it out to expedite drying time. To absorb the moisture and help the rice dry more quickly, line the tray with a paper towel or towel.
  7. The rice take between 2 hours and a full day to dry, depending on your climate and humidity.

How to Make Colored Rice

Preschool Art: Colored Rice

  • Fill each zip-up bag with 1 cup of rice and 1 teaspoon of vinegar.
  • Scoop or pour about 1/8 teaspoon food coloring into the bag.
  • Zip the bag shut

Preschool Art: Colored Rice

  • Squeeze the bag and mix the rice all around until the food coloring is well distributed
  • Pour the colored rice onto a cookie sheet. To absorb the moisture and help the rice dry more quickly, line the tray with a paper towel or towel.

Preschool Art: Colored Rice

We ran out of cookie sheets, so we divided one in half by pulling a paper towel wall up between two colors. Our rice dried in about 5 hours. The rice will dry take up to 24 hours to dry, depending on your climate and humidity.

More Colored Rice

Check back tomorrow and we’ll share a Creative Table set-up using colored rice!

This recipe was inspired by Rainbow Rice via Happy Hooligans

Make a Fall-themed rice sensory bin, via Kids Activities Blog

Side-by-side comparison of dying rice with food coloring and liquid watercolors, via Fun at Home with Kids

 

 

 

DIY Pumpkin Pie Playdough

fall playdough

Have you ever made your own play dough? Im a fan of store bought dough (it’s so easy!), but making your own is a money saver and we can make TONS of it in minutes. And with the simple addition of a little pumpkin pie spice, our dough smells heavenly…just like pumpkin pie!

"Smells like Fall" Pumpkin Play Dough | TinkerLab.com

 

Inspired by The Artful Parent’s Autumn Arts and Crafts book, The Artful Year: Autumn, we finally pitched our peppermint playdough in favor of a more seasonal scent: Pumpkin Pie!

Pumpkin Pie Playdough Recipe…

I used our favorite play dough recipe, which also happens to be the favorite of my daughter’s awesome preschool class, so I’m not going to get experimental with the dough itself, but we did experiment with the spice combination.

The dough itself takes about 20 minutes to prepare, it cooks on the stove-top, and the most complicated-to-find ingredient it calls for is cream of tartar. If it’s hard for you to find, you can get Cream of Tartar on Amazon.

Yes, you can find 2-minute dough recipes, and I’d encourage you to use them if you’re short on time, but the benefit of this recipe is that it will last for ages. Ages. Scroll down for a PRINTABLE recipe card.

"Smells Amazing" Pumpkin Pie Play Dough | TinkerLab.com

After we made the dough, I placed it on the counter to cool. Meanwhile, my 2-year old worked away at pinching out a real pie crust.

"Smells Amazing" Pumpkin Pie Play Dough | TinkerLab.com

When the dough was cool to touch, we squeezed orange liquid watercolors on half of it and then kneaded it in. For this step, be sure to mix on a surface that won’t absorb the watercolors. My 4-year old wanted to make half the dough orange and half of it white.

"Smells Amazing" Pumpkin Pie Play Dough | TinkerLab.com

Although we had planned to use a jar of pumpkin pie spice in the dough, my 4-year old was curious about using whole spices that we just bought, so we pulled out the coffee grinder and gave it a very loud whirl. Fun! I don’t have a proper nutmeg grinder, but this seemed to do the trick. And the smell of cardamom — I absolutely love it.

We experimented with the spice blend by adding the different spices, first quite cautiously and then rather liberally, and in different combinations. I learned that my 4-year old isn’t too crazy about the smell of cardamom, but loves cinnamon.

5.0 from 5 reviews
DIY Pumpkin Pie Playdough
 
Author:
Prep time:
Making time:
Total time:
 
Playdough is a wonderful material for building fine motor skills, developing imaginations through exploratory play, and supporting early engineering and building skills. This recipe rivals anything store-bought.
Supplies
  • 5 cups water
  • 2½ cups salt
  • 3 tbsp. cream of tartar
  • 10 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 5 cups flour
  • Food coloring or liquid watercolors
  • Pumpkin Pie Spice, or a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cardamom
Steps
  1. Mix everything but the food coloring together in a large pot until somewhat smooth. It will be lumpy. Not to worry, the dough will get smoother as it cooks.
  2. Cook the dough over a low heat. Mix frequently. The water will slowly cook out of the mixture and you’ll notice it starts to take on a sticky dough appearance.
  3. Keep mixing until the edges of the dough along the side and bottom of the pan appear dry. Pinch a piece of dough. If it’s not gooey, the dough is ready.
  4. Place the dough on a counter top or large cutting board or cooking tray that can withstand a little food coloring.
  5. Knead the warm dough until it’s smooth and then divide it into the number of colors that you’d like to make. We divided our in half: one orange and the other white.
  6. Flatten the ball, add a little bit of food coloring, and knead it in. Add more food coloring to get the desired shade.
  7. Store the dough in a large Ziplock bag or sealed container. Unused, it’ll keep for months.

"Smells Amazing" Pumpkin Pie PlayDough | TinkerLab.com

My 2-year old was very happy, however, to shake-shake-shake the pie spices all over her gigantic mound of dough. Can you imagine how yummy our kitchen smelled?

 

Easy "smells great" pumpkin pie play dough | TinkerLab.com

After all this cooking, it was time to bake! At this point, our orange and white/tan doughs marbled into something lovely, and we got busy making small cakes and setting them out to eat on a 3-tier plate server.

Playdough Recipes

Rainbow Play Dough, Tinkerlab

No-cook Cinnamon Playdough, The Imagination Tree

39 Ways to Play with Playdough, The Artful Parent

Downloadable (Free) Playdough Recipe Book, Nurture Store

Fall Activities

50 Simple Halloween Ideas for Kids, TinkerLab

Fall Bucket List, Tinkerlab

40 Autumn Activities for Kids, The Imagination Tree

Make Fall Sunprints, Tinkerlab

Multi-color Leaf Prints, Kleas

Negative Leaf Impressions, Tinkerlab

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In case you blinked and missed it, TinkerLab rounds up all the great stuff on the internets on keeping you and your critters creative and wraps it up for you in a tidy newsletter! (And throws in some secret giveaways for good measure!)  – Yuliya P., San Francisco, CA

Join our community and you’ll learn:

  • How to simplify your life and make more room for creativity
  • How to make hands-on making a part of your everyday life
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DIY Water Wall

collection of water wall materials

Does it feel like summer in your part of the world? It’s heating up here, and my kids have been enjoying this easy and inexpensive new backyard water feature. All you need is a nearby water source and a wall to attach it to.

I’ve been inspired by Let the Children Play once again! Last summer Jenny gave us the idea for our mud pie kitchen (and here’s her mud kitchen), and other outdoor hands-on activities that get my kids thinking and building in the fresh air. Her water wall post (full of water wall inspiration from around the web) has been sitting in my mind since she posted it in October (she’s in Australia where it’s bloody hot in October), and it’s altogether responsible for the hours of fun my kids and neighborhood friends had with our newest backyard water feature. Thank you, Jenny!

My older daughter helped me build this one afternoon last week while my toddler was napping. She loved the responsibility of holding the bottles steady while I drilled and took a lot of pride in our finished water wall. It’s not gorgeous, but it’s a lot of fun and an upcycler’s DIY dream.

water wall build

To replicate this upcycled playscape in your own garden or patio, I’ll break this down into some simple steps.

collection of water wall materials

Four Basic Materials

  1. Plastic bottles
  2. Screws (this nifty kit came from IKEA)
  3. Drill
  4. exacto knife

With the exacto knife, cut a hole in the side of the bottle. The hole will be large enough for you to fit your hand into it so that you can easily position and drill in the screws.

score bottle and add screws

Using the exacto knife, score an “X” on the side of a bottle and push a screw through the “X” from the inside. Repeat one more time so that you have two screws poking through the bottle.

Screw the bottles to a fence or wall. Tilt them slightly downward to help the water pour through. You might have to shift the bottles around or cut the holes a bit more to make the water wall work properly. Test as you go.

water wall testing

Test it out to make sure it works. Add a bucket at the bottom to catch the water, which can then be added to plants or returned to the top of the water wall.

Invite some friends over to play.

water wall play

Set up a water-filling station and add some pitchers, watering cans, and cups.

And be prepared for eye-opening, open-ended fun.

 

Sensory Activity: Wheat Berries

sensory activity

Could your child spend hours sifting flour or scooping sand? Sensory activities like these can fully absorb the minds of young children as they test the limits of materials and build imaginary worlds through pouring, filling, and building.

This sensory activity is so easy, it doesn’t require a lot of materials, and the process of exploring tactile materials through hands-on play is good for growing brains.

But why wheat berries? Like rice or sand, wheat berries are fun to scoop, but the larger, rounder size has a different tactile feeling than these other materials. I’m not advocating for one over the other, but presenting this as an option that came on like gangbusters with my kids.

And you can grow or cook this nifty grain after the playing is done…scroll down for more on that.

wheat berry sensory activity

Materials

  • Wheat Berries*
  • Large Container
  • Small toys, bowls, and scoopers

* I found our wheat berries in the bulk bin aisle of Whole Foods, and used a full bag for this project. You can find wheat berries in most bulk bin aisles and online. I spotted this organic 25 Lb Bag of Hard Red Wheat Berries on Amazon and there are plenty of other choices there.

sensory activity

I poured the wheat berries into the tub and placed a few plastic eggs, a couple homemade paper funnels, a couple bowls, a scooper, and an egg carton next to the tub. My kids dropped what they wanted inside and started playing.

sensory activity

They came up with all sorts of ideas that surprised me, but perhaps the biggest surprise was watching them play alongside one another (well, across the table, actually) in total harmony.

The other surprise: This activity went on for days. Each night I would clean everything up, put the lid on the tab, and tuck it away under a cabinet. And the next day my toddler would ask me to pull it out.

sensory activity

The only mistake I made was setting this up over a shaggy carpet. It was such a mess, but nothing the vacuum couldn’t take care of. On a nice day, this would be fun outside, but I would caution you against setting this up over any dirt or land that you wouldn’t want wheat grass shooting up in.

They also brought dollhouse furniture and little action figures over to the tub, where they ran them through various adventures. My three-year old built a paper canoe (seen above), to fill with berries and take Strawberry Shortcake on rides down the river.

I loved watching how inventive they were with this simple grain as the backdrop for their creativity.

sensory activity

And suddenly the tub doesn’t seem so big anymore! When they exhausted all of their play options, walking right in the wheat berries, and eventually sitting in them became a game in itself.

More Wheat Berry Fun

wheat berry

Wheat Berry Gardening (above), Tinkerlab

Wheat Berry Salad with Dried Cherries and Walnuts, Ellie Krieger on Food Network

Wheatberry Salad with Bell Pepper and Red Onion, Barefoot Contessa on Food Network

A nice explanation on why wheat berries are good to eat, and a recipe for Greek Wheat Berry Salad, A Life Less Sweet blog

Have your kids played with this fun sensory grain?

Sensory Activity: Wet Paper

sensory activities

paper sensory activityDoes your toddler enjoy squishing play dough, scooping rice, or dumping buckets of sand? It’s widely recognized (read here and here) that sensory activities play a central role in infant and child brain development.

This is one of those amazing activities that just “happened,” invented by a toddler who was curious about the combination of paper and water, and could be easily replicated in a home or school.

Clean up was a snap!
sensory activitiesI placed a towel on the kitchen floor, and filled a tub of water with a small bowl and ladle for water play. My three year old was building things in the other room with paper, and little R toddled and selected these two pieces of polka dot paper. Pretty.

sensory activitiesBut that wasn’t enough, apparently. She kept walking back and forth, grabbing small handfuls of paper to fill her tub.

sensory activitiesIt seemed that the challenge was to gather paper and squash it as deep into the water as possible.

sensory activitiesI thought I’d help her out a bit when I noticed the slippery trail of water from the kitchen to the dining room.

sensory activitiesAnd then I foraged the recycling bin and tore this magazine apart for her.

sensory activitiesShe finally sat down to work through the big magazine pile, happily engrossed in this meaningful activity.

sensory activitiesAs a last step, I handed her a pair of kitchen tongs for picking up pieces of paper. She’s not quite ready to use them for picking objects up, but she enjoyed snapping them and poking at the paper.

And just so you don’t think this all went to waste, it inspired me to turn the soggy paper mess into a paper-making project the next day. Stay tuned for that!

More Paper Sensory Activities

sensory activity shredded paper

Sensory Activity: Shredded Paper (above), Tinkerlab

Papier Mache as a Sensory Activity for Autism, Sharon’s Creative Corner

Sensory Tub with Shredded Paper, I Can Teach My Child

 

How to Entertain a Toddler with Pom-Poms and Bowls

toddler sitting in plastic container with pom poms

My toddler loves and adores all little things.

Especially those tiny little things that are on the do-not-give-to-little-kids-who-mouth-everything-that-comes-their-way lists. I guess it’s a casualty of being the second child to a 3.5 year old sibling, but I suppose the good news is that she’s building an understanding of what can and can’t go in the mouth.

To play to our strengths, I set up this invitation to play: pom-poms, bowl, yogurt container, and a mini ladle.

bowl of pom poms for play

Materials

  • Tub full of various pom-poms
  • Small bowl
  • Mini ladle
  • Large yogurt container with a hole cut in its top

The invitation

Lay it all out and see what your child comes up with.

toddler sitting in plastic container with pom poms

Not at all what I expected, but I’m digging it.

toddler scooping pom poms

And of course there was lots of scooping, filling containers, spilling, and dumping.

toddler invitation to play with pom poms

This is great sensory activity for building fine motor skills and developing color, size, and volume understandings.

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Sensory Play with Tapioca Pearls

boba in milk

Have you ever had Boba Tea or Pearl Tea? You know those chewy, soft balls that sink to the bottom of milky tea that you suck up through a fat milkshake straw? The drink originated in Taiwan as a novelty for children, and has since taken the world by storm with bubble tea houses popping up everywhere. I have yet to be converted to boba, but I when I spotted a bag of multi-colored dried boba in one of our Asian markets, I saw the opportunity for play and exploration.

To read more, I’m writing over on the Kiwi Crate Blog today about our sensory boba adventure.

What do you think about tapioca pearls as a food or art material?

This post is shared on It’s Playtime.

 

Sensory Experience | Water Beads and Kids

water beads

Have you ever played with water beads? They’re slippery, squishy, and a surprisingly fun and addictive sensory experience for kids of all ages.


Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

If you’re even remotely connected to Pinterest or a fan of any of my fave blogs, there’s a really good chance you already know about these spectacular little sensory Water Beads by Aqua Gems. If it hadn’t been for the magic of the internet I never would have known these even existed, let alone tried them as a tool for exploration and discovery.

Supplies for Water Bead Sensory Experience

  • Water Beads: I found ours in the floral section at JoAnn Fabrics, but if you can’t find them near you, you can easily find them on Amazon.
  • Tray with edges
  • Water

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Step 1

I set up our DIY light table and then N filled the top with about 1/2″ of water.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Step 2

Pour the tiny aqua gems into a small container for for your child to add to the water.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Step 3

Scoop the beads and drop them in. Watch them grow. This is great for teaching patience, and it’s fascinating to watch the beads absorb water.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Our Experience with Water Beads

As my child mixed them up, we marveled at how they grew….slowly….growing….slowly…(good lesson in patience!). N played with them while her sister napped and we set them aside for a couple hours. After snacks and a romp outside, this is what they looked like.

And it turned out that 14 month old Baby Rainbow enjoyed them even more than big sister. I was super cautious at first because little things that look like food go in the mouth, but after a few watchful “not for eating”comments, she was good to go.

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

I tucked the light table under a kitchen cabinet and Baby R has gone back to dig it out at least five times since. I think she’s fascinated by the texture of the beads and can’t seem to get enough of them. I still keep a close eye on her when she uses them, but it’s helpful to know that the gems are non-toxic. In fact, she’s intently playing with them as I type. So maybe this post is really about “how to entertain your little one while you get things done.”

One last thing, the beads look really cool with light shining through them, but it’s not a deal breaker if you don’t have a light table. A clear bowl on a sunny day or in a well-lit room will work well too!

Water beads and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

More Water Beads

For more Water Bead fun, check out Messy Kids’ Creepy Crawly water beads  and The Chocolate Muffin Tree’s Water Bead fun. And related to this, you might also be interested in the FAKE SNOW that we recently made.

Water bead and Kids | A fun sensory Experience | Tinkerlab.com

Have you introduced your kids to Water Beads?

What are your favorite materials for sensory play?

My 14-month old is well-supervised when playing with Aqua Gems. Please use your best judgment when introducing young children to small objects.

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Gluten-free Cloud Dough

gluten-free cloud dough

 How to Make Gluten-Free Cloud Dough

Gluten-free Cloud Dough

After I posted our Cloud Dough recipe last week, Amy from Kids in the Studio wanted to know if it could be adapted into a gluten-free cloud dough recipe. What a good question!

This isn’t the first question I’ve received about gluten-free recipes since starting this blog, and I realized that I should be more thoughtful about sharing information that can help parents and caregivers provide rich learning experiences for their children. The original recipe is simply a combination of 8:1 flour  to oil, so in the spirit of experimentation, I thought we’d replace flour with rice flour and see what would happen.

Gluten-free Cloud Dough Recipe

  • 8 cups rice flour
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • A few drops of Lavender oil (optional)
Mix the rice flour and oil together in a big bowl until the oil integrates into the flour. Add a few drops of lavender oil (or other favorite scent) to give your dough a yummy scent. Place the dough in a big high-walled tray or bin. Children can play with the dough with just their hands, or add scoopers, mixers, and small pots.

If you haven’t bought rice flour before, it’s not inexpensive, and I can see why Amy asked the question! I mixed 2 cups of organic rice flour with 1/4 cup vegetable oil until the oil integrated into the flour, and then shook a few drops of lavender oil into the dough to give it a soothing smell. So far, the main difference I could see is that the rice flour made for a slightly grittier dough, but otherwise it was lovely. The real test would be my kids. I put it in front of my 14 month old, and you can see that she was in sensory heaven. My 3 year old wanted to join in, enjoyed it, and never commented on a weird texture of the dough. As far as I could tell, she didn’t know the difference.

If you make this gluten-free cloud dough, I’d love to hear from you. And if you have a favorite gluten-free recipe to share, please add a link or recipe in the comments.

Experiment with Gluten-Free Cloud Dough

  • If you don’t have access to rice flour or if you feel like experimenting, try the same ratio of flour to oil with garbanzo flour, gluten-free baking flour, corn flour, potato starch, tapioca starch, or arrowroot starch.
  • Change the ratio of flour to oil and see what happens, as the suggested flours and starches (above) will combine differently with the oil.

More Play Doughs

If gluten-free dough doesn’t concern you, here are more dough recipes to try:

This recipe for the BEST play dough.

Non-gluten-free cloud dough.

Glow-in-the-dark play dough

Squishy and Moldable Cloud Dough

DSC_0614

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play dough play

Cloud Dough! 

Have you heard of it?

play dough play

Me either, and I thought I’ve heard of most everything arts+little kids related. Karen at Flight of Whimsy introduced me to the recipe, and as soon as I learned about it I knew my  3 year old would love it. The consistency of the dough is lovely to feel and hold. It can be powdery like flour one moment, and then moldable like damp sand the next. This brought HOURS of fun to my home, and maybe it’ll do the same for yours…

play dough playWe started off with 4 cups of Flour and 1/2 cup of Oil. The original recipe is an 8:1 ratio. I would have enjoyed having the full 8 cups worth, but I didn’t want to deplete my flour reserves, just in case.

Don’t worry about writing all this down. There’s a printable recipe at the end of this post!

play dough playN took the mountain-making and oil mixing job very seriously. We mixed it with our hands for about 5 minutes until the dough held together when we squeezed it. We could still see some oil lumps in the dough, but it didn’t have an adverse effect on the material. The original recipe called for baby oil, but canola worked beautifully for us. However, Karen did mention the lovely smell of the baby oil, so we added a healthy dose of lavender oil drops (found at our health food store) to scent the dough. Heavenly!

play dough playI find it fascinating to sit back and observe how my kids explore new-to-them materials. The first thing N made was a wall. A really strong wall.

play dough playThen she crafted the dough into a bakery and soup cafe. These silicone molds are wondrous for activities like this.

play dough playShe enjoyed picking up and squeezing small handfuls of dough. The texture was phenomenal.

Play Dough Play

play dough playThe next day we brought it back out and shared the dough with some friends. And this is where I wished I had made the full 8-cup recipe. Hoarders!! There was so much scrambling for all the dough scraps, and I found myself patrolling more than I like to. So, if you’re making a batch for more than one child, 8 cups of flour + 1 cup of oil may be the way to go.

5.0 from 4 reviews
Cloud Dough
 
Author:
Recipe type: Dough + Sensory
 
The consistency of this dough is lovely to feel and hold. It can be powdery like flour one moment, and then moldable like damp sand the next. This brought HOURS of fun to my home, and maybe it'll do the same for yours...
Supplies
  • 8 cups flour
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • Essential oil such as lavender or grapefruit (optional)
Steps
  1. Scoop and pour the flour into the center of a large tub.
  2. Create a crater in the middle of the flour.
  3. Pour the oil into the crater.
  4. Gently mix it all together.
  5. Enjoy mixing and learning about the properties of the dough as it is, or add small silicone bowls, spoons, or measuring cups to make small structures, hills, or pretend cupcakes.
Notes
The original recipe is an 8:1 ratio and we started off with half the recipe (4 cups of Flour and ½ cup of oil) because I didn't want to deplete my flour reserves, just in case. Turns out that this was such a hit and a full batch would have been equally wonderful, especially after our neighborhood friends wanted to come over and play with us.

 

If you’re looking for more sensory-dough ideas, here’s a few more to keep you busy:

Rainbow Play Dough

Flubber Gak Slime Exploration

Vinegar and Baking Soda

Flour and Water

Flour and Chalk

Is this your first time here?

  • Join the Tinkerlab network and be the first to know about simple art + science projects for kids, creativity tips, and simple ideas that will make your life more creative. Sign up for our newsletter.

    TinkerLab Newsletter

    In case you blinked and missed it, TinkerLab rounds up all the great stuff on the internets on keeping you and your critters creative and wraps it up for you in a tidy newsletter! (And throws in some secret giveaways for good measure!)  – Yuliya P., San Francisco, CA

    Join our community and you’ll learn:

    • How to simplify your life and make more room for creativity
    • How to make hands-on making a part of your everyday life
    • Easy, actionable ways to raise creative kids

 

Shaving Cream and Food Coloring

shaving cream and food coloring

Have you set up a sensory shaving cream activity yet? My 3 year old first enjoyed this when she was 16 months, and I can attest that it’s an engaging and meaningful sensory activity for toddlers. As children reach preschool, why not mix some food coloring into the shaving cream and take the opportunity to teach about warm and cool colors?

If you’d like to read more, head on over to my guest post on the Kiwi Crate blog.

Wishing you all a happy weekend!